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SCWA requests federal funding to connect Manorville area homes to public water, but Town says not so fast

The Suffolk County Water Authority says it is “ready, willing and able” to bring safe and constantly tested public water to 128 homes in the Calverton and Manorville communities whose private wells are threatened by PFAS contamination.

The water authority said it can do the job “so long as there is a funding source.”

But Riverhead Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar is opposed to allowing SCWA inside the town’s boundaries, and says the Town Board will vote on a proposal Wednesday “expanding goals to provide clean, safe water east of EPCAL.”

“They’ve been trying to take over our water district for years,” Ms. Aguiar said. 

The Town was given the NAVY property in 1998 for economic development to replace jobs lost when the Grumman Corporation — which made and tested fighter planes there from 1956 to 1996 — left.

The NAVY retained 352 acres of land that needed to be cleaned up due to pollution caused by NAVY and Grumman. An investigative article published by Newsday in late December reported “that Grumman was aware at least 35 years ago that pollution generated by its work for the Navy had the potential to migrate below the surface in a wide area that includes the Peconic, which feeds fresh water into the region’s estuary.”

The Navy still owns 208 acres that have yet to be cleaned. The other 144 acres was deemed to be successfully cleaned in 2007 and given to the Town.

Recent tests show that some of the polluted groundwater from the site has migrated off-site and toward people’s homes. Manorville residents have for years called on officials to address their concerns.

Jeff Szabo, the chief executive officer of SCWA, on Tuesday wrote in a letter to Kenneth Braithwaite, the Secretary to the Navy, of SCWA’s readiness to do the job.

Mr. Szabo noted that the groundwater contamination “is believed by some” to have emanated from the former Naval Weapons Industrial Reserve Plant (EPCAL) in Calverton.

He said SCWA supplies water to 1.2 million residents. 

A recent survey conducted by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services indicated that several of the private wells exceed public drinking water contaminant standards and guidelines.

SCWA estimates that the total cost of bringing water service to the impacted area would be $12.15 million, including the cost of installing private service lines for each home.

Mr. Szabo indicated that having SCWA move forward with the project is the best option for the communities.

“The area is within SCWA’s service territory, as designated by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation,” Mr. Szabo wrote. “We have extensive experience with such large-scale projects and a staff of experts ready to provide a safe water supply to all residents in the impacted area.”

He said Riverhead Town’s Water District would not be the optimal solution for several additional reasons.

A large portion of the area is in Brookhaven Town, “so there is a significant legal issue as to whether the Riverhead Water District could serve this portion of the contaminated area,” Mr. Szabo wrote. 

He added that a recent study by Riverhead Town indicates that it does not have a sufficient quantity of water to service the area, whereas SCWA does.

Also, he wrote, SCWA can complete the project at a lower cost than the estimate made by the town. 

Mr. Szabo said SCWA has 585 employees whereas the Riverhead Water District “employs only a handful of full-time employees with no significant experience managing a project the size and score of the Calverton/Manorville area.”

(According to town records, there are 19 full-time employees in the Riverhead Water District.)

“It is our mission to provide high quality drinking water,” said SCWA Chairman Patrick Halpin, a former Suffolk County executive, in a press release. “We are ready to proceed with this project as soon as funds are available so families in this neighborhood no longer have to worry about the water they’re drinking.”

Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and U.S. Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand were also copied on the letter.

Ms. Aguiar said the town feels it can do the job better.

In February 2020, the Town Board authorized H2M consultants to provide a map and plan to consider the extension of the water district to include properties along River Road, Old River Road, Horton Court, Wading River Manor Road, Oakwood Drive, Line Road and Grumman Boulevard.

The town boundary extends to the Peconic River. 

Kelly McClinchy, a Manorville resident who has petitioned town officials to provide public water to the area, is backing the SCWA proposal.

“The contamination of our drinking water supply is an urgent concern for our neighborhood and must be acted on promptly,” she said in the SCWA press release. “We appreciate the Suffolk County Water Authority’s efforts to move forward with this project and urge the Navy and the elected officials to do the right thing and make the funds available quickly to extend public water to the area. The residents are counting the days to get public water, and know, truly, that our drinking water is safe and clean.” 

“There is an urgent need for clean water in this neighborhood,” another resident Ronald Martz, said in the same SCWA release. “This has been a longtime concern for us, and the potential for contamination increases day by day. Water is not a luxury and this extension is critical to our health.”

The contamination is believed to have come from what is now the Enterprise Park at Calverton, but which in the past was part of the Navy’s property, which was leased to the Grumman Corporation.

So far, the Navy has declined to accept responsibility for any pollution.

Both the Riverhead Water District and SCWA have expressed interest in providing connections to the neighborhood.

Ms. Aguiar reacted with anger to Mr. Szabo’s letter. 

“The issue of providing clean safe drinking water to Manorville residents is of paramount concern for me as supervisor and the entire Town Board,” she said. 

“Myself, Councilman Frank Beyrodt, Water District Superintendent Frank Mancini, Stan Carey, Chairman of Planning Board, and the town attorney staff have discussed this issue with county, state and federal representatives” on ways to fund the water district expansion to Manorville,” she said.

“As supervisor, together with Councilman Beyrodt, we have worked with staff and we are confident the Riverhead Town Board will support a proposal to have a resolution in this week’s packet, expanding goals to provide clean safe water east of EPCAL,” she said.

As for Mr. Szabo’s criticisms of the town water district, the supervisor said: “As far as SCWA bullet list attacking the Riverhead Water District, the quality and reputation of personnel (some of whom were once employed and held key roles at the SCWA) is insulting and quite frankly, unfounded and untrue. 

“As I have repeatedly asserted in the past, perhaps this is a repeat of takeover attempts and attacks seen during the [former Town Supervisor Phil] Cardinale and possibly under the [Sean] Walter administrations. I must admit, after recent conversations with Mr. Szabo and his staff, I am shocked to see this response.”

Asked if SCWA is trying to take over the town water district, Mr. Szabo responded by email, saying: “This section of Calverton is in SCWA’s legally defined service territory and our sole interest is to provide high quality drinking water to residents in desperate need.”    

Ms. Aguiar said the DEC has “adamantly” advocated for the SCWA to have sole right to service EPCAL.

She said EPCAL “has been and will continue to be designated as an economic development avenue for the Town of Riverhead.”

“The Town of Riverhead Water District is one of the Town’s most respected and valuable assets, along with its superintendent and employees,” the supervisor said. “An attack criticizing the Water District and an assumption of ineptitude will not be taken lightly. We will defend and protect our water district.”